The realities of paddleboarding | Reporter’s notebook

In the last 10 years, the sport of stand-up paddleboarding has exploded, which has raised the risk of water-related fatalities.

The Orcas community was shocked and saddened when a visitor drowned last week in Mountain Lake after falling off a paddleboard. He wasn’t wearing a life jacket and did not know how to swim.

With increased activity in our waterways, it’s critical to understand what is required to stay safe doing an activity that is new to many people.

According to Small Craft Advisory, a website for boating-law administrators, by 2015 just under 3 million people had tried paddleboarding “into literally all of our nation’s waterways.” There’s a reason for that. It’s supremely accessible. Before it became mainstream around 2005, paddleboarding was originally a working craft — natives from regions all over the world found easier access to reefs and fishing while standing. Warriors in parts of Africa stood up in dugout canoes and used their spears as paddles to move silently into enemy territory, SUP World Mag delineates.

A paddleboard is lighter and smaller than a kayak or canoe. You simply plop it in the water and go. It’s accessible to kids, less expensive than other watercraft hobbies and a fun, intimate way to interact with the environment. Kayaking, in comparison, is limiting. A paddleboard is versatile and fast. You can lay prone and paddle or propel on your knees. “SUP” (stand-up paddleboard) yoga classes have developed from the notion that improved core stability occurs when training on unstable surfaces. As paddleboarder instructor and Karl Kruger put it, every time access increases, there are more opportunities for tragedy.

Water safety is a privilege that not everyone has access to. According to a 2017 study funded by the USA Swimming Foundation, 79 percent of children in households with incomes less than $50,000 have little-to-no swimming ability. Of those surveyed, 64 percent of African-American children and 45 percent of Hispanic/Latino children have little-to-no swimming ability, compared to 40 percent of Caucasian kids. Myths, stereotypes, a lack of representation in professional swim sports and false beliefs surrounding people of color and swimming have directly caused restricted performance and limited participation. Not surprisingly, the study concluded that 87 percent of these non-swimmer youth plan to visit a beach, lake or pool at least once during the summer months. As evolution would imply, it is in our collective human nature to head to water.

Swimming is a life skill, much like riding a bicycle, fishing or building an appreciation for the outdoors. Yet basic water safety knowledge and being a strong swimmer are also life-saving skills that everyone — regardless of socio-economic background — should have access to. Formal swim lessons have proven to reduce the risk of drowning by 88 percent. It’s never too late to learn.

The United States Coast Guard classifies paddleboards as “vessels,” yet many who use them have no idea that a USCG-approved life jacket and a sound signaling device (whistle), as well as a flashlight, are required on board at all times. Wearing a PFD isn’t required unless the occupant is 12 years or younger. Places like Walmart or Costco deemed “no service environments” that market water sports equipment at low price-points to entry-level participants, don’t have signs up warning customers that personal flotation devices on stand-up paddleboards are required by law. Until the Coast Guard mandates all paddlers wear a PFD, it’s up to each of us individually to ensure safe decisions are made on the water.

“When you think of paddling around in a place like Cascade Lake, marshmallows on the fire, kids splashing around in the water and an amber sunset come to mind. It’s innocuous, with a Norman Rockwell, American family quality that lulls you into this false sense of security. What could go wrong? People lose sight of risks,” Kruger told me over the phone. “A beginner’s lesson should be required and ubiquitous for paddleboarding. The number of people I see without basic safety gear is astonishing. Maybe it’s partially a marketing problem. You see all these images of beautiful people in bikinis paddling in beautiful places. People don’t realize they’re on 50-degree water.”

If you plan to take part in a water-based activity, take the necessary steps to ensure you and your loved ones stay unharmed. Ask your friends how comfortable they are in the water, or what level swimmer they are. Make sure that the equipment you have is suitable for your ability level. Consult a lifeguard or more experienced paddler for advice and knowledge of the conditions you are considering paddling in. Wear a life vest. Tell a parent or close friend of your paddling plans. Honor the buddy system. Prepare for the worst-case scenario. Education is the key to prevention.